Bourbon Penn 30

It Tastes of Rot

by Margaret Roach

Day 40

It has been precisely forty days since I have left my small accommodations due to the declining state of the outside world. Much like the Lord in the desert, I refuse to give in to the temptations of the world around me. I had never thought of my humble, little self as brave, but facing every day is an act of bravery in these wicked times. How good I am for not going outside and staying in my small box of the world! The window tempts me, but I have covered it with a dark black cloth. How smart and resourceful I am! All I know of the outside world is the clanging of pots at 7 p.m. I am content with this fact.

Day 44

I have started to make bread out of decay. It contains flour and yeast. They eat each other to produce bacteria that forces it to rise. It will not be ready to eat for days or maybe even months, but I have no reason to eat it yet. Love is patient and so am I. My Husband (Oh, the honorable Mr. Wright) will be so proud of me! I have placed Bart on our kitchen counter to remind me that something is still living.

Day 48

The bread’s name is Bartholomew. When I pour flour into him, he bubbles. I think that it means that he loves me. I love him so much. Before this all began, we had planned on trying for a child, but now the world is too much for that. I have agreed to these terms. I was sad before, but now I am happy. I have Bart and he is all that I need. I hope that he will need me, too. I like to stand in the kitchen and watch him like a mother watching her child in a cradle. I cannot take my eyes off him. I barely breathe at all. I breathe like a bird. I think that it is important for a woman to be as dainty as she could be. If I take in only the smallest amount of air, then I am the essence of loveliness. I breathe in and breathe out.

Day 54

My husband (Oh, the Beautiful Mr. Wright!) returned home today, but he refused to let me kiss him chastely on the cheek due to fears I may become infected with the horrors of the world. How sacrificial he is! Instead, he stood in the shower for three hours and refused to get out. When he left the shower, his skin was red like a warring planet. He laid in bed next to me and breathed in and out. I watched. I love him so much. I think I have always loved him this much. The pacing of my breathing matches his. He was gone when I woke up in the morning; his side of the bed was unmade. I cannot bring myself to make it. I must tell myself: This is how life is meant to be lived.

Day 66

Today, I got a new job. Within hours of sending in my application, I received an answer that I must begin working immediately. My employer’s names are the Society Assisting Terrorized Albanian Newts, but they simply call themselves the Society. I have always been a charitable person. They will pay me a wage of eleven dollars and fifty cents. Me and my husband (Oh, the forsaken Mr. Wright!) will be able to worry so much less. He works so hard in the sick wards all night and day. My wage will allow us to buy petty things, like new entertainment and food delivered at night by an unseen figure in a hood. What luck! How wonderful this world is despite the horrors that live in it! My job is so simple. People who complain about jobs are weak-minded.

Day 68

I excel at this job! All I do is write words. I do not know what these words mean because they disappear the moment that I write them down. The words that I catch before they go away are odd. Today, I believe I wrote the word “esophagus” four times. Each time had an extra p. I’m sure it’s necessary – we all need to do our part.

Day 70

I think Bart is hungry. All he does is moan. I had to put him into a large bowl because he broke through his glass jar. Flour just isn’t enough for him to grow tall. Today, I had a brilliant idea. I took the flies from the sticky trap and slipped them into his supple skin. He’s been purring all afternoon! I take care of my son. He is made of flour and yeast. And yet, I feel that he is more than that.

Day 76

I am not lonely, because I have made a dear new friend. He is the man who lives next door. Before this began, I never really considered my neighbors. We lived separate lives in our little bubbles. Maybe we would nod to each other, but they were not complete people. They didn’t have interests or lives but were only meant to be faces in the crowd. There are no crowds anymore. The Man Who Lives Next Door is now my dearest friend. Funny how life works that way. I suppose that I have always heard him muttering to himself, but today, I pressed my ear to the side of the bedroom wall. He was speaking to me! What silly things does the Man Who Lives Next Door tell me! He wants me to break all the mirrors, slice through the soft part of my husband’s stomach (Oh, the Worthy Mr. Wright!), and go to the grocer to lick all of the red apples. He is so funny!

Day 77

My old self has died and I have become a new, wondrous person. This new woman no longer wears clothes that are stiff, but ones that are soft and contain images of dogs and yellow birds. Her hair is not the color of golden thread, but it has faded at the roots. Her nails are short, and someone keeps biting them off. I barely look in the mirror anymore, but I am sure that this new person is beautiful. She is named Jezebel because it is the name of a queen. I always thought that I was meant to be a queen. As a child, I wore a crown and walked barefoot everywhere. I do not wear a crown, but my shoes have all disappeared.

Day 78

Today, whispered in his slithering voice, The Man next door said, “Jezebel, you must forsake the conveniences of modern life. They have made you fat and lazy. It is not the plague making people sick, but it is modernity. It suffocates them and covers their lungs with a swift black sludge. You can still escape if you begin to live like we used to. Then, you will be ready to be the vessel of our new lord. You were always meant to be a mother.” I laughed and laughed! Imagine me – a mother!

Day 87

Batholomew smells of rot. It is the smell of something that has been left in the sun too long or the animal on the side of the road. He is covered in black specks and as I wait for my husband to come home (Oh, My Lost Mr. Wright!), I swear that I can see the specks slowly moving like stars in space. I fed him extra flour today because I am so proud of him. I am a mother. He is my growing boy. Not only am I a mother, but I am also an entrepreneur! I received a promotion at work and now the society has me writing paragraphs. They fade away almost as quickly as the words, but I am able to understand that what I am writing is not about Newts. My boss told me that I am an exemplary employee and that I should expect more things in the world. My promotion is not paid in finances but in secrets gracefully delivered by my sweet friend, The Man Who Lives Next Door.

Today, he has taught me:

1. The past is mostly made of lies created by world governments. We are told stories. There is no truth, only stories so we can live within the comfort of narratives.

2. I am not a human woman. No further context was offered beyond this.

3. My husband (Oh, the Pure Mr. Wright!) was not born of human parents. He was created deep in an underground lab.

I am unsettled by all these things and wish most for a moment of total silence. I beg. The whispering continues. The black specks move faster. They move faster. I remind myself – this is how life is meant to be lived. I am sure.

Day 93

My husband (Oh, the victorious Mr. Wright!) has not returned since his last visit. I receive no communication from him. I miss him, but love is meant to be kept waiting. I keep myself busy. There is work and there is cleaning. After writing my thousands of words of the day, I dust. Today, I wrote “sin” 330 times. There is so much dust. I read once that dust is from human skin, but it is only me in my home. Where is it coming from? I worry, but it is not a problem. It gives me something to do!

Day 102

Today, I had a conversation with the Man Who Lives Next Door. I have included the transcript. I have no comments.

J: How are you doing, my dear dear friend!

TMWLND: I am not dead. I have always been blessed by the fact that I have not died. Have you looked outside your window lately?

J: No.

TMWLND: Ah, you should! There is a river in the middle of our street and every once in a while, a figure floats down.

J: Are there boats?

TMWLND: No, but there are rafts. There are no people on these rafts. I do not think the water is a good thing. It contains a thick black sludge that is mixed in with everything else. The river smokes.

J: Is that you all see outside your window?

TMWLND: No. I see many things.

Day 115

Bart is starving. He is crying. I can hear the sound of whimpers and I feel an ache in my stomach – hunger or sympathy? I stand in front of Bart in my nightgown. I have never touched Bart. I should not be afraid to touch him. I stick my finger into the fleshy side of him and relish in its coolness. The coolness fades. My hand is sinking deeper and deeper. Teeth! All I feel are teeth. Molars that do not stab, but press and press! So many teeth! I stand in the kitchen as my son bites down. I think that this is what I must do. Finally, I pull my hand out, but it is missing a finger. It doesn’t bleed. I don’t think it hurts. It aches. That is normal. I’m glad to keep my son alive. I wish he took another finger. That one had my wedding ring on it. Children take so much from us, don’t they?

Day 122

Today, a man from the society stopped by my door. He didn’t say much, but he wanted to know how Bart was feeling and if he was growing. I had so much to say about Bart! He is a good boy. He is a smart boy. He is all that a mother needs her son to be. I talked and talked for hours. I felt so lonely when the man I left, I just cried and cried. The Man Who Lives Next Door did his best to keep me company. At night, he no longer whispers, but groans. I cannot tell if it is in pain or if it is something else. I fall asleep to the rhythm of his cries. What a good friend.

Day 142

It tastes of rot and sweetness. The bread. It tastes of a warm breath and a mother who needs something to love that is not a child. The heat did not kill the specks of black. It tastes of women dancing naked in fields and accusations. The specks vibrate on the tongue. It tastes of the cold side of the bed and a husband who will not return. The color is not the color of bread. It tastes of a childhood friend who lives a life without you and the metal feeling in your stomach. The specks move faster. It tastes of the world outside the window that has stopped and the sound of pots clanging at 7 p.m. The bread. It tastes of rot and sweetness.

Day 143

Bart showed me things. He showed me secrets, he is helpful in that way. I know everything now. The Society does not protect newts. They protect the future. The world is covered in a thick black sludge and there is nothing left to do except let it start again. Things grow out of decay. They bubble over. I was always meant to be a queen. This will be my chance. What comes after wife? I do. Jezebel. This is who I am meant to be. I saw a picture of myself, or a woman who I assume is me, sitting on a throne covered in black specks with a swollen belly. It is late. My mouth tastes of rot and sweetness. The Man Next Door mutters his praises. I do not sleep, but stare up at the wall. Something moves. Letters appear. I have received another promotion. How proud I am! This is how life is meant to be lived.

Day 150

Today, Mr. Wright (Oh, my beloved Mr. Wright!) returned home. Or, at least I think that he did. A man appeared at my door wearing a hazmat suit and would not stop knocking on my door. I peered into the small, clouded piece of plastic that covered his face, but it was difficult. Most of it was covered in black sludge, but I could see the green of Mr. Wrights’s (Oh, my sweet Mr. Wright!) eyes and his ruddy complexion. I opened the door and let him in! I went to kiss and hug him and do all the things that a wife is supposed to do when a husband returns home, but he pushed me away and went into the bedroom. The door is locked. I sit by the door with my knees pulled close to me. The Man Who Lives Next Door won’t stop laughing.

Day 170

Bart is feeling anxious. I always know how Bart feels, because a mother understands her son. He does not like Mr. Wright at all. Mr. Wright has started to leave our bedroom and walked around the apartment saying all the things wrong with it. He does not like the way I redecorated. He should have been here if that was a problem. I ignore most of the criticism, it’s hard to hear him with the stupid hazmat suit, but poor Bart is distressed. He won’t even eat, and he just sits there and throbs. I drop pieces of my left hand into him and the blood just sits there. He’s taking on a pinkish hue. It’s not how his complexion is meant to be. Something will have to be done.

Day 187

Today, I had a conversation with The Man Who Lives Next Door. I have included the transcript. I have no comments.

J: How are you today, neighbor?

TMWLND: Better than you!

J: Why do you say that?

TMWLND: I do not have an invader in the house.

J: Oh, silly. That’s my husband. I love him very much.

TMWLND: How do you know it’s him?

J: He’s my husband and I love him. Anyway, his eyes are green. He has always had green eyes. I love this about him because I thought that he had the prettiest eyes I had ever seen. A wife knows her husband’s eyes. I am a good wife.

TMWLND: Lots of people have green eyes. I have green eyes and yet – I am not your husband. He is an invader! All he wants is to harm you and the blessed boy. Take off his mask and reveal him! Moan.

J: …

Day 210

I did not have a good day today. Work went on for hours and hours. I have been so busy lately and Mr. Wright (Oh, Mr. Wright?) doesn’t appreciate it. He just walks around complaining even when I ask him to go back to the bedroom. He just won’t shut up about the kitchen and how much space Bart takes up on the countertop. Men talk so much. Finally, I stood up, walked over, and stared up at his face – was he always this tall? He froze, but underneath the hazmat suit, something was moving. I put my ear to his chest and listened as something buzzed in the suit. He placed a hand on my back and said, “Don’t worry Jessica. It will be over soon.” I do not know who Jessica is. It is a dreadful name. He says softly like it means something. I do not know how to describe how he said it except that it was soft. I wrapped my arms around his rubber body. My hand goes up. My hand goes down. Something buzzes.

Day 220

I think I might have killed someone today. I say that I killed someone, but I do not believe that the Man In The Hazmat Suit to be my Mr. Wright (Oh, My Lost Mr. Wright!). Despite their shared green eyes, this man tried to murder me, and Mr. Wright would not try to murder me. I was standing at the counter feeding Bart his daily allotment of flesh. I’ve taken to using a small knife to cut off pieces from my thigh because Bart is greedy and he’ll eat too much if he feeds freely. It was too large anyway. I always had fat thighs. I was sliding the knife into the left one and all of a sudden that man was behind me! His hands were around my delicate neck. They were squeezing and squeezing. He was sobbing. He was apologizing. The knife was in my hand, but I couldn’t quite get him. He said he had to stop me. He said Bart was an abomination. He said he didn’t even know me anymore. God, what an idiot. He shouldn’t have mentioned Bart. I am a mother. A mother protects. Bart must live. He is everything. There is nothing, but Bart. I slipped from his grasp and dug the knife into his vinyl chest. I dug and dug and dug. He doesn’t move anymore. He lays in the kitchen. The blood will take so much work to clean up. What a nuisance. Bart will be happy at least to have something else to snack on. We all need to try new things.

Day 230

I received another promotion today. Apparently, that man was a sleeper agent who was supposed to destroy Bart and all of our plans. The Society is so proud of me. I even received an employee of the month certificate. It was under my pillow when I awoke this morning. It smells.

Day 242

It tastes of rot and sweetness. The bread this time. It tastes of a whispered proclamation of love and a long, deep moan. The specks have become a black hole. It tastes of red soil next to a playground and a child who may have been. The specks cover my teeth. It tastes of the light fluttering in from black curtains and a cloud of thick dust that grows. The color is pale like a sickness. It tastes of a punch in the gut and a wish for enough pain to go to the emergency room. The specks move faster. It tastes of the world outside that has been consumed by the flood and the sound of pots clanging at 7 p.m. The bread. It tastes of rot and sweetness.

Day 243

Today, I had a conversation with the man who lives next door. I have included the transcript. I have no comments.

J: Tell me what you see outside your window this morning.

TMWLND: I see apartments like the ones that we live in and people staring outside the window. They clang kitchen utensils for five minutes every hour and have jars of black specks on the windowsill. Do you think they are like us?

J: No. I think they must be very different. They are happy.

TMWLND: They’ll all be dead soon anyway. Like your husband. Groan.

J: What do you mean? The Blessed Mr. Wright?

TMWLND: There’s no need for him anymore. His purpose was to bring you here. All we need is each other, the jar, and The Society. I’m going to be your Joseph baby. Long moan.

J: But, what is my purpose?

TMWLND: Grunt.

Day 265

Bart loves to eat that Man. He purrs as he eats, and I think he licks his lips. It’s sort of cute how excited he gets about his meals. I never thought that I would have a child like this. I thought that my child would wear sneakers and wear their hair in pigtails. Bart doesn’t have any hair. I think he’ll have a good life anyway. I hope that he does. I’m doing my best here, but there’s so little left.

Day 280

Today, the man who lives next door professed his love for me. He has always loved me. He loves me like a man loves a goddess. I liked the things that he said, so I love him, too. Love makes you complete. I am part of a missing piece. We are not meant to be alone. He will be my piece and will be connected at the shoulder and at the hip. Smells of rot and sweetness drift in from the air vent by my bed. I think it’s that bad man in the kitchen. He’s almost gone now. All that is left is his foot and head. I can’t bring myself to look at his face. I coughed and a slick black sludge slipped out of my mouth. It tasted like licking a metal screw, but I was undisturbed. Courage! I whisper over and over again – this is how life is meant to be lived.

Day 300

Today, I received a caller at my door. This caller was not a stranger, but rather my supervisor. “Hello!” I said, my voice coming out a croak. It’s like I have never spoken even though I have had many conversations with The Man Who Lives Next Door. “What can I do for you today?” He shudders at my voice. He is such a hard worker. “I need to tell you a secret.” “Another one! I really appreciate all the secret telling, but we really must get a move on the whole end of the world thing. Life cannot be all about planning.” He smiles. “You are so smart, Jezebel. You always know what I am going to say.” I think he smiles. “We need you for the world to end. You need to take the final steps outside your door and let the decay out. You’ve been so selfish, containing it all for yourself.” There are teeth. “You have a destiny, and we always knew that. You always knew that this would be how it ends.” “Do I need to do it right now?” “Of course not, we follow you.” I watch him and his endless teeth through the peephole. “You are a queen. You just need to accept that.” “But, what about the Newts?” He told me not to be stupid and left. Sometimes jobs can be difficult. Still, this is how life is meant to be lived.

Day 306

Bart has begun to reshape himself. I noticed this morning when I was feeding him. He is no longer a pile of dough, but a doughy child. It is like he is made out of clay. I reached for one of his wet, wet hands and we sat on the floor together. I think that I was weeping. There is something wet on my face. It smells like sulfur and salt and iron. Bart doesn’t mind if I do not look perfect. All that I am is for Bart. If I was smart, I would be afraid. I am not a smart woman.

Day 308

This is how life is meant to be lived this is how life is meant to lived this is how life is meant to be lived this is how life is meant to be lived this is how life is meant to be lived this is how life is meant to be lived this is how life is meant to be lived this is how life is is meant to be lived this is how life is meant to lived.

Day 310

Today, I had a conversation with The Man Who Lives Next Door. It is as follows. No comments.

J: When will we be married?

TMWLND: When this is all over. We can’t get married when we can’t leave our housing. We will have to cohabitate.

J: Will you leave me?

TMWLND: I will never leave, you can’t leave when you are attached to another person. I’m not a good man, because there is no such thing, but I will not leave you. Moan.

J: What do you do for work? I can’t believe I never asked you that. Before this, I worked for an advertising company. I don’t know what we advertised, but I think that I was happy.

TMWLND: This is all that I’ve ever been. I was born in the apartment and I’ve always been waiting for you.

J: Aw, that’s sweet.

TMWLND: Groaan.

Day 312

You were happy with the world before. It was not the sort of happiness that made you smile or weep with joy, but I think that you were happy with the world as a whole. You and your husband would go on walks. It was a little life. Some lives are meant to be small and lived softly. You would have tombstones that people would take etchings of because they forgot that we once lived. It would be an honor to be forgotten.

Day 314

The Society comes by my door daily and reminds me that I have a duty to start the great reckoning. I signed a contract. I do not remember signing a contract. I do not remember much of those early days. I could have done anything. I remember the first night of this when it seemed like a vacation. This is not a vacation. Queens are always working. Did they forget to ask me what I wanted?

Day 318

Bart took his first steps today. They were much too fast. Children always grow up faster than we want them to. He is getting so tall. He is almost taller than me. Can a mother be afraid of her son? I know that he is meant for terrible things. The green eyes of the man I hate follow me as I move. Lots of people have green eyes. Lots of people have sons who do bad things. All I see is the head of the man I killed, and my son who grows because of me.

Day 320

Today, I had a conversation with The Man Who Lives Next Door. It is as follows. No comments.

TMWLND: Are you ready? Groan.

J: …

TMWLND: This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: Groan. This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: You were born in an apartment; waiting. Groan. This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: You are a queen. You were born in an apartment; waiting. Groan. This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: Moans. You are a queen. You were born in an apartment; waiting. Groan. This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: You must be ready by now. Moans. You are a queen. You were born in an apartment; waiting. Groan. This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: We are waiting for you! You must be ready by now. Moans. You are a queen. You were born in an apartment; waiting. Groan. This is all you were ever meant to be. Are you ready?

J: …

TMWLND: Are you ready?

(It repeats until his voice is gone. I do not sleep)

Day 333

Was there a life before this? (You used to work in sales.) Did I go outside and breathe deeply? (You used to get drinks.) Did I stare at the sun until it hurt? (You used to think you were happy.) Was there contentment before this? (You used to be a little bored.) Who was I before this? (You used to dream all the time about this.)

DAY 342

It tastes of nothing. This has all been nothing. What a silly little woman I am. My husband leaves and I get hysterical! How long has it even been? A week? It must have been the bread. It can have that effect on women, you know. It makes us all crazy and wild. It just needed to ferment a little while longer. I feel so good. I go into the bathroom. I take off my soft clothes and put on my nicest dress. The blue one with little flowers. It does not zip up. Oh, my belly! Still, I look beautiful. I put on mascara. I take off the dress because a woman should always remove one accessory before leaving the house. I remain beautiful. Oh! I will not leave the house, because we all must do our part. Tomorrow, I will quit my job and start a hobby. I don’t really need the money. No one has come to collect my bill in ages. The government must be helping. There was a time that I didn’t think they were helpful. What a stupid bitch she was! Always complaining about how the world was. That person was an idiot. I am very smart. Tomorrow, instead of praying to the Society, I think I will thank the government. Tomorrow, I will recreate myself again. I will stay inside the box of my world and wait for my friends to come home. Mr. Wright (Oh, Mr. Wright! Oh, Mr. Wright! Oh, Mr. Wright!) has left me, but love fills in the spaces that we leave unspackled. I wave in the mirror. Goodbye, Jezebel!

Day 342 Cont.

It did not taste of nothing. It tasted of rot and sweetness and everything horrible. It has been living inside me this whole time. I am rotting and sweet. Bart has infected me. I was only practice. Used. It is fine. It is for him. I sit at my dining room table. I used to sit here with my green-eyed husband. There is a puzzle on the dining room table. I have never seen it before, it must be from Mr. Wright. I touch one of the pieces and specks consume it. God, men always leave things lying around. It’s so much easier without him here. The knocking grows more. Bart is patiently waiting. He wears shorts. What a good boy! He needs to see the world. The Man Who Lives Next Door has resorted to yelling. Oh, silly me! Keeping everyone waiting. A woman must always have things to do. We get silly and bored. Women are so stupid. I am a queen. A queen is not a woman. I cannot believe that yesterday I was so stupid. Even queens are weak. I will not correspond again. Soon, I will get up from the table.

I will walk to the door.

I will open the door.

I will let the rot out.

I am sick of what the world used to be. I am ready for the next one. Oh, I will be so happy. That was not how life was meant to be lived. I do not know how I am meant to live. I will find it. I just have to open the door, but the doorknob is covered in a thick black sludge.

Margaret Roach is a writer who lives and works in the Hudson Valley, New York. She writes primarily speculative fiction about sad robots and unreliable lady narrators. She is inspired by her Catholic school education, her adolescence wasted as a theater kid, and whatever she finds decently funny. Recently, she graduated with her bachelors in English and is now working on completing her masters in Library and Information Science. She works as an evening library assistant who does her very best to not lock people in the library.